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Unlocking the Word-Hoard, Pt. 1

Back in the 7th-century people had pretty hard lives. Just the sheer work of survival–planting and harvesting crops, hunting, fishing, making and repairing clothes, defending your holding against wild animals or wild men–would daunt even the hardiest of souls among us.

But that’s not to say that people in the so-called Dark Ages didn’t have any opportunities or time for entertainment. I have blogged the various ways people would entertain themselves before but I wanted to return to that topic. I will be exploring in this post and innate least one more (maybe two more!) the specific form of entertainment of reciting poems and songs,  and the person who would provide it, known as the scop or gleeman.

In this post, I will focus on the scop. As I have said before, in looking at this era there is often heated debate about the veracity of one thing or another, and in the case of the scop  there is a discussion among scholars as to whether or not such a figure actually existed. The argument goes that although the scop appears as a figure in Early Medieval poetry such as Beowulf,  that doesn’t necessarily mean that there were such people in real life who provided this type of entertainment in Anglo-Saxon Britain.

I only mention this to acknowledge the discussion. I’m going to proceed with the assumption that there were such people, and that they did exactly as they are depicted in the poems, that is, perform poetry and songs for people, in exchange for gifts or other benefits. It just makes logical sense to me that there were people who provided this function in society, especially since both the Germanic culture from which the Anglo-Saxons sprang and the Celtic culture they lived amongst in Britain included people who did just that.

I mentioned both scop and gleeman earlier. These are actually two different types of people who brought poetry and song to their communities. The scop was generally attached to one king’s court, and would act as not only an entertainer for the people generally, but more importantly, would be the king’s personal propaganda machine. He would be the one who would compose poems and songs that would extol the strength and virtue of his king, which would help to spread the fame of that particular king to others. He might occasionally travel from one court to another but for the most part, he would be permanently attached to one king.

Of course, kings die and circumstances change, and so even a permanent place in a king’s court did not necessarily mean that the scop‘s future was secured. There are a couple of poems that come to us in the Exeter Book that seem to address the fate of a scop who is looking for new employment, so to speak. The first one, called Deor’s Lament, includes these verses at the end:

This I must say for myself:
that for awhile I was the Heodeninga’s scop,
dear to my lord. My name was Deor.
For many winters I held a fine office,
faithfully serving a just lord. But now Heorrenda
a man skillful in songs, has received the estate
the protector of warriors promised me.

Another one, called Widsith, is an interesting one. It begins,

Widsith spoke, unlocked his word-hoard, he who had travelled most of all men through tribes and nations across the earth.

A scholarly article by Lisa M. Horton, called Singing the Story: Narrative Voice and the Old English Scop gives some fascinating information about scops in general and this poem in particular. She suggests this poem could be seen as a sort of resume of the scop’s accomplishments and skill set, perhaps giving a potential employer confidence that the person reciting it knows his stuff, so to speak.

The poem is about the travelling minstrel, Widsith, as seen from the opening lines above, and it goes on to recount the various places the scop has travelled to and the various kings he has served. It is quite apparent, however, that this poem is not meant to be factual. The poet says he was with Caesar, the Huns and Goths, the Angles, the Saxons, the Burgundians, the Irish, the Picts, the Israelites and Assyrians, and many, many others.* This is obviously not possible, but Horton postulates that the poem would demonstrate to potential employers (and to the listeners) that the scop has knowledge of all these kings and events and is, therefore, a worthy candidate for the position.

Scops used instruments in their performances. The main instrument seems to be the lyre, but harps and bone whistles were also used to make music. It’s unclear exactly how the poems and stories were performed. It’s possible the poems could have been sung, or perhaps recited, with the music as background music as the scop spoke.


A reconstruction of the lyre that was buried in the Sutton Hoo burial. It is part of the grave goods of the high-ranking nobleman or King of East Anglia who was  laid to rest there in the first part of the 7th century AD.  Image from Wikicommons

This shows another one of the values to Anglo-Saxon society of the scop. Aside from the entertainment they provided they held the history of their people (and of others) and were able to impart it to their society. The scops would recount the battles and accomplishments of their lords and in so doing would give an account to others of what was happening in the wider world, even if that account was often one-sided or slanted in favour of the current king.

The scop held quite a bit of power and prestige in the court. Think about it. If your only chance of having your renown known beyond your death was to have your deeds immortalized in a poem the scop would be reciting after you were gone, you had a pretty good incentive to both perform the heroic deeds that were worth recording and to also make sure the scop was well taken care of so he would be inclined to write favourably of you as well.

And there would be no cheating on your part. It seems likely that the scops were not just on the sidelines, writing their poems from the accounts from the warriors who were present at the various battles. They were first-hand observers and likely participants who would write from what they had seen and experienced themselves. So a warrior couldn’t just make up a mighty deed of valour to tell the scop later.

This is a video of someone playing a replica of the Sutton Hoo lyre. It can be played by strumming, as shown here. or by plucking the individual strings.  

In her article, Horton points out that the first line of the Widsith poem gives us a another clue to the importance of the scop and the poetry and songs he shared. The line contains the phrase, wordhord onleac, translated above as unlocked the word-hoard.   This compares the value of the words to come with the value of a treasure hoard.

In an oral society, where only a few could read, and there was not much to read even if you were one of the privileged elite, having someone who could share with you the treasures of new words, stories, poems, and songs, would be someone highly esteemed indeed.

Being a wordsmith myself, I love this picture of the hoard of words, highly sought after and liberally shared by those who carried them around.


* You can find the original poem and a modern English translation here, if you are interested.

Coming in Pt. 2 – a closer look at the gleeman, and the types of songs and poems he would provide.